26 February 2009

Baking bread

The Basic Bread loaf made yesterday

I was asked by Charis to post about a simple bread recipe and I’m happy to do that because I know there are a number of readers who are trying to perfect their bread or just starting out in the wonderful world of home baking.

First let me say that it doesn’t matter whether you make bread by hand or in a machine. The aim in making bread is to make a good wholesome loaf that contains no preservatives, is cheaper than a shop-bought loaf, and is so delicious, that it becomes your family’s bread of choice. Either hand or machine will give you that, but you also need to fit bread making into your normal day-to-day activities. We are all aiming for no fuss, not much time in preparation, and good reliable bread every time you bake. If someone tells you you’re not doing the right thing making bread in a machine, don’t listen to them; if someone tells you must use a machine to get good bread, don’t listen to them. Make up your own mind and do it how it works best for you, and that might be a mixture of both, or one of them. Trust yourself.
Basic bread is a mixture of flour, water, yeast and salt. There are many other things you can add, but that is your basic loaf. If you would like to add more flavour, you’d add maybe some milk or milk powder, oats, sugar, butter or oil, or different flour – such as wholemeal, whole grain, rye, sourdough rye, soy and linseed, corn and barley or spelt. Each will give its own unique flavour and they have differing nutritional benefits. Remember, white wheat flour, and most other flours, are bland in taste and must have these natural flavourings added. Once you work out what flavour works best for your family, then you can tweak the amounts of salt, sugar etc so you get the bread that suits you perfectly. I have noticed that American recipes call for a lot more salt and sugar than we use here. This is all just a matter of taste - adding more or less salt or sugar to a bread recipe doesn't spoil the bread - so start with a good reliable recipe and experiment with your additives until you get them right. If the recipe you use has too much, or too little, sugar or salt for you, change it.

Inside the basic loaf.

The bread I made yesterday to test out this basic loaf recipe is the most basic loaf I know of.

  • 4 cups flour
  • 1¾ cups of water
  • 2 teaspoons yeast
  • ½ teaspoon salt
It turned out okay but it’s not a really tasty loaf. You will get better if you add more flavourings. Here is a more flavoursome recipe. If you use a machine, put it in the machine in this order:

  • 1½ teaspoons dried yeast
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 65 mls (2oz) warm water
  • 3¾ cups baker's flour - also called strong flour or high protein flour
  • 3 teaspoons gluten flour (from supermarkets, the health food store or bulk goods store)
  • 1 tablespoon butter/margarine (softened)
  • 1½ teaspoons salt
  • 1 tablespoon milk powder
  • 1 cup warm water + more if necessary
  • 3½ cups bread flour - can be white, wholemeal, rye, grain - whatever. If you use a heavier flour you'll need to increase the amount of water used.
  • 1 teaspoon salt. Please use good salt, not table salt. Even cooking salt is better than table salt.
  • 1 tablespoon butter
Put all the above in your bread machine bucket.

In a teacup add and mix up:
  • ¾ cup lukewarm water
  • ½ tablespoon sugar
  • 2 teaspoons yeast
plus another cup of warm water - I can't tell you the exact amount of water you'll use. That will depend on your flour and the weather. Start with the 1¾ cups and you might have to add more.

Mix the ingredients in the cup and allow to stand for 5 minutes. You want your yeast to prove - it will look like this:

When it's finished, remove the dough and roll it into a long cigar shape - about 12 inches long. Cut into about 8 pieces for large rolls or 12 pieces for small rolls. Take each piece of dough and work it with your hands into a nice round ball. Place all the balls on a baking tray, add seeds, polenta or a criss-cross and allow to rise for about 30 minutes - depending on the temperature in your house.

All the bread machine recipes above can be made by hand as well.


More of my posts on bread are here, flower pot bread is here, moving beyond the plain loaf is here, the New York Times no knead bread. My tutorial for making bread by hand.

But baking isn’t just about recipes, is it. It’s about technique, knowing your ingredients and doing the right thing. Don't be a passive bystander when you're cooking, become involved in it. Learn about your ingredients and what they do. Know why you're using them.

So here are a few hints:
  • If you store your yeast in the fridge, and you should, mix it in warm water to bring up the temperature before you add it to the flour. You can either wait till it bubbles, so you know the yeast is active, or you can just mix it in and use it after it's warmed up. If you’re using water from the hot kettle, pour the water into the cup first, test it to make sure it’s not too hot, then add the yeast. Pouring hot water into yeast will kill it.
  • No matter what type of flour you use, it will absorb differing amounts of water depending on the weather. If it's a humid day you might find you use less water; on a dry day, or in a heated home, you might need more. So when you go through a recipe, be flexible with the water. If a recipe calls for 1 ¼ cups, add one cup and mix, adding the ¼ cup slowly until the dough looks and feels right. If you don't add all the ¼ cup, or if you add a little more, that is okay.
  • Whether you use your hands or a bread machine, you need to touch the dough. Learn the feel of good dough so you know what to look for. Remember all stages of the dough - it changes a lot through the process. Basically, when all the ingredients are mixed together, you want a dough that isn't too sticky (although almost all rye dough will be more sticky that wheat dough) and isn't too dry. Feel it between your fingers and thumb, just like feeling a piece of fabric. Wheat dough will be soft by not sticky. If you're still at the beginning, you can add a little more flour or water, according to what your judgement aims you at. Don't add anything at all at the end of the process, you'll ruin the bread.
  • Don't use too much flour to knead the dough. A light sprinkling is enough. Adding more flour when kneading adds more flour to the dough and at the end of the process that will give you a tough loaf.
  • You need a hot oven to bake bread successfully, and the oven needs to be pre-heated for the best results. Bread has two types of rising - one is from the yeast you use, the other is called "oven lift" - you get this when you put properly proved bread dough into a HOT oven. The heat immediately starts to lift the bread. That is what you want. Adding dough to a warm oven won't give you the same result.
And the best tip I can give is to warn you that you will have flops, everyone does, but that's okay, learn from it and keep going. When the bread doesn't rise properly, or if it tastes bland, work out what went wrong and fix it next time. Because if you can get this right, if you learn how dough should feel at all stages of preparation, if you work on shaping your bread and decorating it, if you get into the rhythm of making bread on a regular basis, it will become a joy for you and your family. Bread making is one of the true pleasures of living a simple life. Be brave, give it a go.
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